Roni’s Requiem to Her Father’s Loom
One could start this story with the Bible. The Torah tells us that the Hebrews in the Holy Land used to weave and decorate the Temple in Jerusalem with every imaginable fabric.
The Egyptians, however, wove fabrics even earlier. In the Egyptian collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, there is a display of textiles from the tombs of the pharaohs. The fabrics look as if they were just bought at a nearby fashion store. One has to see it, to believe it!
Another possibility is to start this story with the Talmud. Talmudic scholars bestowed much attention to cloth. For example, many pages were dedicated to their discussion related to impurities in fabrics.
The history of Jews in Spain offers another good starting point for the story of Jewish textile industry, as Jews in the Iberian Peninsula were known for their silk, famous throughout Europe for its superior quality.
Yet another point of reference could be the sixteenth-century city of Safed in the Galilee. Back then, this humble town was a major regional producer of textiles. Later, the red fez woven in Safed was the pride of the Ottoman Empire.
The artist Roni Ben Ari, however, chooses to begin her story in central Europe, at the turn of the twentieth century. She has personal reasons for doing so: shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, the city of Łódź became the largest textile center of central Europe. The Jews of central and eastern Europe played a major role in that success story. The reasons were simple: in 1848, the Russian Emperor allowed the Jews from the Pale of Settlement to gradually settle in the cities of Congress Poland. A dozen years later, they received the permission from the Russian Crown to settle in Łódź. Within less than fifty years after that, nearly half of the city's textile industry involved Jews. Does it mean that the Jews of Łódź were by-and-large the owners of textile mills? Hardly! Most of them were hard-working proletarians, just like their brethren who during those years had emigrated to America, where they worked from dawn to dusk in the infamous sweatshops of New York.
Their kin in the Old World obediently served the looms of Izrael Poznański. Izydor Birnbaum, or Juliusz Bielszowski, Jewish tycoons of their time. How many Jewish industrialists were there? Not very many, of course—a fact that still escapes most people. In Łódź alone, twenty-seven thousand Jewish workers labored at the mills. Those who wish to understand why so many Jews were attracted to Socialism and Communism must become familiar with the history of textile industries in Europe and the United States during those years.
Among the tens of thousands of Jewish weavers in Łódź was Moshe (Moszek) Halpern, the grandfather of the artist Roni Ben Ari and of her sister (and my wife) Nurit Neustadt-Noy. Roni begins the story of her father’s looms in this city and its surroundings. As I said earlier: it is a personal matter.
Łódź was nicknamed “The Polish Manchester,” a term conveying high regard, since Manchester became a major hub of textile manufacturing during the industrial revolution of the early nineteenth century— a transformation that helped in the rapid expansion of the British Empire where the sun never set.
We can assume with certainty that without the devastation of the First World War, Łódź would have retained its textile supremacy in central Europe for many more years to come and kept its Jewish weavers and entrepreneurs. But this was not destined to happen.
A year after the end of “The Last Great War,” Poland was finally able to escape the claws of Russia and achieve its independence. Its economy, however, failed to recover.
During the years 1923-25, the Polish Prime Minister and Minister of Treasury was Władysław Grabski. He founded the Polish Central Bank and fought vigorously against the disastrous inflation but failed. The textile industry, the pride of pre-war Poland, was slowly dying. A multitude of workers were left unemployed. As if it were not enough, by 1924 the United States no longer welcomed emigrants. The gates of Palestine remained open for a while. The result was the Fourth Aliyah to Palestine, the “Grabski Aliyah” as it was known. Jewish laborers whose expertise was in textiles immigrated to Palestine as well as to other countries, such as Romania. Moshe Halpern was among them. He tried his luck in the one field that he knew in Romania and succeeded for a while. Too bad really. He could have emigrated to Palestine and brought with him a few looms and his knowledge.
But ultimately it made no difference. Fifteen years after Halpern left Łódź, the Second World War broke out and set everything on fire: Poland, Romania, and all lands in-between. A week after the outbreak of the war, Hitler's Wehrmacht was already occupying Łódź. I need not tell you what happened to its Jews.
The situation in Romania was a bit better for a few months. Eventually the fire storm engulfed Romanian Jews as well, and destroyed the Halperns’ looms, their savings, and their dreams. The Halperns were scattered all over the land and miraculously survived. Avraham (Abram) and Miriam, the father and mother of Roni and Nurit, arrived in Palestine as early as 1940. They were young, they were Zionists, and above all they were lucky. Roni's father went back to working at the looms—this time as a hired laborer. Her grandparents joined him in 1949 in Israel that had been established just a year earlier. Somehow, they managed to survive the war in Europe. They “missed” the War of Independence in Israel, but did not escape the austerity that ravaged the young country immediately thereafter. Moshe Halpern bought a few old looms. Avraham and his brothers joined him. The Halpern family was back in business. The “Halpern Textile Firm”prospered again. Actually, it was not much of a prospering, but it was enough to survive. Not only did the working class and socialists contribute to the development of the State of Israel; the Jewish middle class contributed its share too. It is an undeniable fact, though not everyone is aware of it.
The Halperns leased an ugly industrial complex in Tel-Aviv and Moshe's looms kept shaking the walls and floors of the building for more than twenty years, while high-quality textiles were woven. The final product sold well in Israel and abroad.
In 1969 Israel's textile manufacturing output reached tenth of the country’s total industrial production. This was a miracle, and the Halperns were a part of it. The craftsmen had every reason to be proud of this fact. Then the decline came. Modern looms were invented: efficient, sophisticated, and ruthless. They demanded a new knowledge in electronics and computers, and Roni's father was no longer young and unable to confront the new demands of the trade. Grandpa Moshe had died years earlier. The country was flooded with cheap textiles from the Far East. The competition became impossible. At first, the superior quality of the Halpern textiles continued to keep the family in business. Roni Ben Ari, the artist, looks at the fabric amazed: over three decades of use and laundering, and the cloth looks as if manufactured an hour ago. Finally, the competition became impossible and the looms fell quiet one by one...
Then the owners of the leased complex paid the Halperns a meager compensation and got the building back. Immediately thereafter, bulldozers came and leveled the old structure. Today a new, modern building is standing in its place—cold and tall and aloof. A few years later Avraham died and was buried in the small cemetery overlooking the Mediterranean Sea; then Miriam joined her husband.
This was not the end of the story because a few months after Miriam's death, Roni came across the parts of an old loom; she miraculously stumbled into them. The memories of her childhood were brought back at once, flooding her with emotions, forcing her to react to them artistically.
You are invited to have a look.
Isaac Neustadt-Noy, Ph.D
Nurit Halpern Neustadt-Noy, Ph.D